Embrace Our Heritage Part 5

Reykjavik


The stories in What The Bear Said are set in one or more of these three worlds. “Sigga’s Prayer”, takes place in the first world of Iceland and ends as she is leaving for Amerika. The title story of the book, “What The Bear Said”, takes place in New Iceland. “Sidewalk of Gold” begins in Iceland and ends in New Iceland. These are stories about the transition between the old world and the new world and how people joined both past and present to create these new lives. These are stories of emigration and immigration.
The Iceland of our ancestors was a harsh place. Poverty in the 1800s was endemic. Iceland was the poorest country in Europe and Europe was poor, so poor that people left their home countries in vast numbers.
We can embrace our heritage by embracing facts, by embracing numbers but that is not where memories lie. When we say let us embrace our heritage, we usually mean let us embrace our families, our ancestors, our people. Our people with all their quirks and virtues and faults. Just like us and our relatives today with our virtues and faults.
 The Great Geysir

In 1874, Bayard Taylor, a famous American journalist went to Iceland to report on the visit of King Christian IX. Bayard and his companions went to the geysers at the same time as the king and his entourage.
Bayard writes, “Soon afterward there came a married couple, the mother carrying a baby which, as it needed but a glance to see, was almost dying of croup”. Croup is caused by a viral infection and results in a barking cough and a narrowing of the airways. It interferes with a child’s ability to breathe. The child would have been struggling to breathe. “They had carried the child on horseback for five hours, in the hope of finding relief. There was no time to be lost; hot baths and poultices were ordered at the byre (farm) near at hand, and in the meantime an opiate was administered. The gasping and writhing of the child was too much for those strong Icelandic men. The mother stood calm and firm, holding it; but Zoega (the guide) ran away in one direction and Eyvindur (the other guide) in the another, crying like children, and the farmers turned aside their heads to hide their tears.”
“At the byre nothing could exceed the kindness of the farmer’s family,–in fact, of all who could help. The King’s purveyor furnished white bread for a poultice; a hot bath was made ready, and the father stuffed the child’s clothes into his bosom to keep them warm for it. All night the people watched with it, and the next morning everybody looked happy, on hearing that its condition had somewhat improved.”
“I made an effort to talk with a group of farmers, finding them ready enough, only a little embarrassed at the start; but when I asked: “Do you know Saemund’s Edda?” there was an instant flash and flame in their faces and all shyness vanished. The Njal and Volsunga Sagas, Snorre Sturlsson, with a score of obscurer Sagas of which I had never heard, were eagerly mentioned and discussed.”
There is everything in this account. The diseases that afflict Iceland, the lack of medical care, the stoicism of the people, the great difficulty of travel, the pride in the distant heritage and the belief that there was once a golden age.
Surely, all this is worth embracing. Reading Taylor”s various accounts of Iceland in 1874, I want to reach through time and embrace the people he describes. Taylor says “Within an hour I had seen tenderness, goodness, knowledge, and desire for knowledge”.

The King at the Geysers

In Reykjavik, there are various formal affairs but one of the major goals of his hosts is to show the king the Geysers. The geysers are one of the wonders of the world. The geysers don’t erupt but much is revealed about both the Icelanders and the king during the time the king waits to see the Great Geyser send its legendary column of water skyward.
Although the King has ordered 160 horses for his trip to Thingvalla and the geysers, Zoega manages to find 30 more horses for Bayard Taylor’s group of twelve men. This group is made up of seven visitors, the steamer’s cook, the second steward plus three Icelanders—Geir, Zoega’s nephew, Eyvinder and Jón. First, they travel to Thingvalla. They stay overnight, then continue to the geysers. The Americans set up their tents and wait for the geysers to erupt. The King’s party arrives shortly after them. They, too, set up their tents and wait. During this waiting, Taylor learns something about Icelanders.
“I saw half a dozen—four men and two women—stand vacantly grinning at the King as he
passed them, and even when he politely saluted them, the men hesitated, in awkward shyness, before they even touched their hats. Another, to whom he was speaking in a kindly manner, with his hand upon the man’s shoulder, suddenly remembered that some mark of respect was necessary, and snatched off his hat with as much haste as if there had been a hornet inside of it.
“Among the people were several sick persons, who had made long journeys in the hope of finding a physician in the King’s suite. Disappointed in this, they turned to Dr. Hays and our jovial Rejkiavik friend, Dr. Hjaltalin.
“The first case was a man suffering from Bright’s disease, for which, unfortunately, we had no medicines. But the medicine-chest, when it was opened, attracted our visitors with a singular
power. Men and women crowded around, gazing with eager interest and (as it seemed to me) longing upon the bottles of pills and potions.
“Soon afterwards there came a married couple, the mother carrying a baby which, as it needed but a glance to see, was almost dying of croup. They had carried the poor child on horseback for five hours, in the hope of finding relief. There was no time to be lost ; hot baths and poultices were ordered at the byre near at hand, and in the meantime an opiate was administered. The gasping and writhing of the child was too much for those strong Icelandic men. The mother stood calm and firm, holding it; but Zoega (he has come with the King’s company) ran away in one direction and Eyvindur in another, crying like children, and the farmers turned aside their heads to hide their tears.
“At the byre nothing could exceed the kindness of the farmer’s family,—in fact, of all who could help. The King’s purveyor furnished white bread for a poultice; a hot bath was made ready, and the father stuffed the child’s clothes into his bosom to keep them warm for it. All night the people watched with it, and the next morning everybody looked happy, on hearing that its condition had somewhat improved.
“The next case was a boy with hip disease, for whom little could be done, though the Doctor constructed a temporary support for his foot.
“The people invariably asked how much they should pay, and gratefully shook
hands when payment was declined. I made an effort to talk with a group of farmers, finding them ready enough, only a little embarrassed at the start; but when I asked: “Do you know Saemund’s Edda !” there was an instant flash and flame in their faces, and all shyness vanished. The Njal and Volsunga Sagas, Snorre Sturlusson, with a score of obscurer Sagas of which I had never heard, were eagerly mentioned and discussed. It was remarkable to see their full knowledge of Icelandic literature, and their vital interest in it.
Do you know who first discovered America?” I asked.
“Yes, yes!” they all cried, in a body; “it was Leif, the son of Erik the Red.”
“When was it?”
“About the year 1000. And there was Thorfinn Karlsefne, who went afterward, and Thorwald. They called the country Vinland.”
“We know it,” said I. “I am a Vinlander.”
“They silently stretched out their hands and shook mine. An instinct of the true nature of the people arose in me. Within an hour I had seen what tenderness, goodness, knowledge, and desire for knowledge are concealed under their rude, apathetic exteriors. To meet them was like being suddenly pushed back to the thirteenth century; for all the rich, complex, later-developed life of the race has not touched them. More than ever I regretted my ignorance of the language, without knowing which no stranger can possibly understand their character.”
The Americans and the King’s party are to be disappointed. They’ve come, like many others, to see the Great Geyser. At one moment, it sounds like an eruption will occur.
“The King, who had turned aside to salute our company, was in the act of expressing to me his admiration of the scene, when the Little Geyser gave sudden signs of action. There was a rush of the whole party. His Majesty turned and ran like a boy, jumping over the gullies and stones with
an agility which must have bewildered the heavy officials, who were compelled to follow as they best could. It was a false alarm.”
Even a king cannot command the Icelandic wilderness.
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)